leitmotif. motif

Last week, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor Neil Serven replied.

Q: motif means “a dominant idea or central theme.” leitmotif means “a dominant recurring theme.” So, how do these two words differ?

A: In extended use, “motif” and “leitmotif” have very similar meanings.

“Motif” suggests an idea that recurs like a pattern (as in design or architecture), but there is enough extended use that flattens the word to mean simply “theme”:

In retrospect, it is now clear that the alien invasion motif in 1950s science fiction movies reflected the Cold War atmosphere of the period.—Paul A. Cantor, Gilligan Unbound, 2001

Apart from giving us a great deal of new information on the Holloways, Ricketts argues very convincingly for a motif of abandonment in much of Kipling’s writing, including the Jungle Books, Kim and Captains Courageous.—Elizabeth Lowry, Times Literary Supplement, 19 Feb 1999

“Leitmotif” is a term originating from opera; it referred to a recurring melody that played along with a character or allusion to a theme whenever one or the other appeared on stage. Its extended use doesn’t follow up from the original as fluidly as “motif” does, but it does share with “motif” the meaning of simply “a recurring theme”:

Conspiracies are a leitmotif of talk radio, even its organizing principle-the bond that unites millions of voters, each in a separate car, driving and listening and, from time to time, pounding the steering wheel in frustration.—James Ridgeway, Village Voice, 14 June 1994

Ms. Silverthorne suggests in “Sojourner at Cross Creek” that a leitmotif of Rawlings’s life was betrayal or the fear of it, an anxiety that developed following the end of her first marriage, in 1933, and lasting the rest of her life.—Jerome Griswold, New York Times Book Review, 20 Nov. 1988

I would say that the two words are practically synonymous, though “leitmotif,” due to its origins and particularly its ties to narrative, might be more likely to be found in literary or academic contexts. I think more than a few writers use it as a fancy-sounding substitute for “motif.”

Candor Beats Jargon Every Time

Simon Owens points us to this remarkably candid statement from Reddit:

“We know many of you will wonder what happened to /r/politics and /r/atheism and why they were removed from the default set. We could give you a canned corporate answer or a diplomatic answer that is carefully crafted for the situation. But since this is reddit, we’re going to try things a bit differently and give you the real answer: they just weren’t up to snuff. Now, don’t get us wrong, there still are good parts about them. Overall, they just haven’t continued to grow and evolve like the other subreddits we’ve decided to add.”

Related: The Candid, Commendable Way to Announce You Were Just Fired

off of

Rose needles David about the amount of money he reaped off of Seinfeld in syndication.

Rose needles David about the amount of money he reaped off Seinfeld in syndication.

Rose needles David about the amount of money he reaped from Seinfeld in syndication.

Larry David Woefully “Regrets” His Broadway Debut in Fish in the Dark

You Are How You Punctuate

“Digital punctuation can carry more weight than traditional writing because it ends up conveying tone, rhythm and attitude rather than grammatical structure.”

Ben Zimmer

lectern. podium

lectern: what public speakers stand behind

podium: a raised platform, such as what Olympic medalists stand upon as well as speakers who don’t need the protection of a lectern

Style & Substance

Damn Fine Writing

“Leading network news anchor Brian Williams has been placed on double-public probation by NBC News for six months, and won’t likely return to his throne. Meanwhile, over on the cable end of the dial, top news-jester Jon Stewart has told Comedy Central he’s done with the big chair and wants to do something else. Their coincidentally simultaneous exits have created something akin to a full employment act for the press corps—with endless news coverage from the hard-news guys and reflections and verdicts from members of the commentariat. Even I got two columns out of the Williams affair, and at the urging my editors, here I am on my third!”

Jack Shafer

Why You Need an Editor

“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” —James Michener

“Writing is one percent inspiration, and 99% inspiration.” —Louise Brooks

“The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lighting and the lightning bug.” —Mark Twain

The Dying Art of Proofreading

Did I Read That Sign Right?

In a Laundromat

In a London Department Store

In an Office

In an Office

Outside a Secondhand Shop

In a Health-Food Shop Window

In a Safari Park

During a Conference

In a Farmer's Field

On a Leaflet

On a Repair-Shop Door


Man Kills Self Before Shooting Wife and Daughter
How's that possible?

Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says
Really? Ya think?

Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
Now that's taking things a bit far!

Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
What a guy!

Miners Refuse to Work after Death
No-good-for-nothing' lazy so-and-so's!

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
See if that works better than a fair trial!

War Dims Hope for Peace
I can see where it might have that effect!

If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile
Ya think?

Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures
Who would have thought!

Enfield [London] Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide
They may be on to something!

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges
You mean there's something stronger than duct tape?

Man Struck by Lightning; Faces Battery Charge
He probably is the battery charge!

New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
Weren't they fat enough?!

Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
That's what he gets for eating those beans!

Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
Do they taste like chicken?

Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
Chainsaw massacre all over again!

Hospitals Are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
Boy, are they tall!

Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
Did I read that right?

Bad Writing Wastes Millions and Millions of Hours

“Thirty students send me attachments named ‘psych assignment.doc.’ I go to a website for a trusted-traveler program and have to decide whether to click on GOES, Nexus, GlobalEntry, Sentri, Flux or FAST—bureaucratic terms that mean nothing to me. My apartment is cluttered with gadgets that I can never remember how to use because of inscrutable buttons which may have to be held down for one, two or four seconds, sometimes two at a time, and which often do different things depending on invisible ‘modes’ toggled by still other buttons.”

Steven Pinker

The Headline Pun Hall of Fame

Complaints about the overuse of puns
Shun Puns? No, Hon. More Pun-Ishment Coming!
Action-movie special-effects detonation experts
Business Is Booming!
The funeral industry
Is Death a Laughing Matter? Of Corpse Not!
Journalists who want to be forced to testify against sources, so they can decline, and be heroes
Subpoenas Envy
A plumber who used only a plunger and his own massive strength to relieve a toilet clog after an industrial-strength machine snake had failed
A Modern-Day John Henry, a Stool-Drivin’ Man
The guy whose job was to empty porta-potties
Waste Is a Terrible Thing to Mind
The guy whose job it was to watch parolees pee into cups during drug tests
Looking Out for Number One

“Don’t Do This” vs. “Please Do That”

“An easy way to fall into the negativity trap is to start listing out things people shouldn’t do. Don’t leave uneaten food in the office refrigerator. Don’t be late to the meeting. Even saying ‘don’t forget’ is more negative than saying ‘remember.’

“Instead of telling others what not to do, try telling them what they should do. Please take your lunches home at the end of the day. Please arrive for the meeting five minutes early.

“People are much more likely to comply with a positive request than a negative complaint on their behavior.

Bernard Marr

Speak English, Man!

Coca-Cola recently announced its results for Q3 2014. As a result, shares of KO sank 6%. The explanation, according to CEO Muhtar Kent: Coke is struggling with “a challenged disposable-income growth environment.” Gee, thanks for clearing that up!

My Favorite Movie Monologues

1. A Few Good Men

2. The Newsroom

3. Sports Night

4. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

5. Malice

6. The West Wing

7. Scent of a Woman

8. A Time to Kill

9. Glengarry Glen Ross

10. Good Will Hunting

11. Scandal

My Favorite Movie Dialogues

1. Breaking Bad

2. The Social Network

3. The Social Network

4. The Social Network

5. Charlie Wilson’s War

Why You Should Use Analogies

Do you know what a “pomelo” is? If not, consider these competing definitions:

1. A pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart.

2. A pomelo is basically a supersized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind.

Which is better? The first infuses the definition with detail; the second draws an accessible analogy.

In Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath argue that the second version works better because it “taps the existing memory terrain of your audience. You use what’s already there.”

That’s the power of an analogy.

Is Your Best Language in the Best Location?

Every joke you’ve ever heard is predicated on this principle: saving the most important line for the end.

Here’s an example from Macbeth. Which one is best?

1. The Queen, my Lord, is dead.

2. My Lord, the Queen is dead.

3. The Queen is dead, my Lord.

Answer: #1. Because it creates a crescendo, which culminates at the end.

heading. header

Earlier this month, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor Jennifer N. Cislo replied.

Q: Merriam-Webster gives the exact same definition for the words “heading” and “header”:

“a word, phrase, etc., that is placed at the beginning of a document, passage, etc., or at the top of a page”

So, how do these two words differ, if at all? Is one more common than the other? (For what it’s worth, a simple search of Google returns 80.3 million results for “heading” and 43.4 million for “header.”)

A: The two words are synonymous in this sense. As you’ve discerned from your Google search, “heading” is the more commonly used of the two.

The Only Argument You’ll Ever Need to Favor the Active Voice

Passive Voice
Active Voice
It Was Heard Through the Grapevine by Me
I Heard It Through the Grapevine
You Will Always Be Loved by Me
I Will Always Love You
My Heart Was Left by Me in San Francisco
I Left My Heart in San Francisco
You Are Loved by Her
And I Love Her

The Metaphors of Dr. Gregory House

1. An MRI

Foreman: We inject gadolinium into a vein. It distributes itself throughout your brain and acts as a contrast material for the magnetic resonance imager.

Chase: Basically, whatever’s in your head lights up like a Christmas tree.

2. Bad News

Movement disorder or degenerative brain disease? Either way, this kid’s gonna be picking up his diploma in diapers and a wheelchair.

3. An Electroencephalography

Get him an EEG... If this thing wants to talk, let’s listen.

4. The Immune System

Infections are the criminals; the immune system’s the police.

5. The Liver

The liver is like a cruise ship taking in water. As it starts to sink, it sends out an SOS. Only instead of radio waves, it uses enzymes. The more enzymes in the blood, the worse the liver is. But once the ship has sunk, there’s no more SOS. You think the liver’s fine, but it’s already at the bottom of the sea.

Which Headline Would You Click?

Uber Hires Top Obama Adviser David Plouffe As New “Campaign Manager”
David Plouffe Joins Uber As “Campaign Manager”
Uber Hires Former Obama Advisor (and Shady Telecoms Consultant) David Plouffe to Lead Insurgent War
Uber Hired David Plouffe When It Realized “Techies” Can’t Do Politics
Uber Picks Political Insider to Wage Regulatory Fight
The New York Times
Uber Puts Former Obama Campaign Chief in Charge of Its Image
Uber Snags David Plouffe, DC Heavyweight and Former Obama Campaign Manager
Uber Just Hired Obama’s Political Guru to Battle “Big Taxi Cartel”

Being Wordy Is Easy. Being Concise Is Hard

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

Blaise Pascal

Addendum (1/14/2015):

“If you’d like me to speak for five minutes, I’ll need a month to prepare. If you’d like me to speak for 20 minutes, I’ll need two weeks. But if you’d like me to speak for an hour, I’m ready right now.”

Woodrow Wilson

The 4 Criteria to Write the Perfect Analogy

1. Use the Familiar to Explain the Less Familiar

The first job of a persuasive analogy is to use something familiar to explain something less familiar.

2. Highlight Similarities and Obscure Differences

The second job of a persuasive analogy is to highlight similarities and obscure differences. In any analogy, there are going to be similar­ities and differences between the objects of comparison. The key is determining which are most relevant.

3. Tell a Coherent Story

In an uncertain world, stories offer us emotional reassurance, and coherent stories offer more reassurance. Coherent stories are easier to grasp. And when stories are easier to grasp, listeners are more apt to accept both the storyteller and their story’s conclusions as credible.

4. Resonate Emotionally

Emotions, once triggered, are like a genie released from a bottle—hard to recapture and cork. And given that emotion often trumps rea­son, this is one reason why analogies can be so hard to parry. That is, in addition to whatever intrinsic logical parallels analogies may reveal or assert, the most persuasive analogies also make an intuitive, emo­tional appeal that often transcends logic.

—Adapted from John Pollack

The Easiest Way to Improve Your Writing: Read the Work of First-Rate Writers

1. Here’s an example from last weekend’s Times magazine:

“Paying to simulate backbreaking labor under the watchful eye of a demanding authority figure seems to be a common desire these days. When I type ‘sledgehammer’ into Google later that day, the first suggestion is ‘sledgehammer workout,’ a search term that pours forth half a dozen enthusiastic re-enactments of life on a steel-driving chain gang. . . .

“CrossFitters represent just one wave of a fitness sea change, in which well-to-do Americans abandon easy, convenient forms of exercise in favor of workouts grueling enough to resemble a kind of physical atonement. For the most privileged among us, freedom seems to feel oppressive, and oppression feels like freedom. There’s also a very American fixation on extremes at play: more is always better. If you’re running just four miles a day and doing a few pull-ups, you’re a wimp compared with the buff dude who’s ready for an appearance on American Ninja Warrior. It’s hard not to feel awe when you watch a middle-aged woman in a Never Quit T-shirt clean-and-jerk huge weights. And it’s hardly a stretch to go from lifting a 35-pound kettlebell to wondering why you can’t run half a mile with it, especially when a CrossFit coach is right there, urging you to ‘crush it.’ Common wisdom seems to dictate that it’s not enough to look good and feel good if you’re not prepared to lift a Mini Cooper off an injured stranger.

“The whole notion of pushing your physical limits—popularized by early Nike ads, Navy SEAL mythos and Lance Armstrong’s cult of personality—has attained a religiosity that’s as passionate as it is pervasive. The ‘extreme’ version of anything is now widely assumed to be an improvement on the original rather than a perverse amplification of it. And as with most of sports culture, there is no gray area. You win or you lose. You leave it all on the floor or you shamefully skulk off the floor with extra gas in your tank.

Heather Havrilesky

2. And from Nerve.com:

“There are 206.3 million blogs on Tumblr. About 11.4% of the top 200,000 are teeming with porn, adult-oriented videos, and otherwise NSFW content. The streams are filled with limbs, enterings, openings, and finishings—noted, liked, reblogged. It’s a moving menagerie of couples grinding in grainy GIFs, penetrating in JPGs, and topped off by third party-hosted videos replete with the moans and breathy articulations pictures simply don’t capture. Their bed is always open for the curious passersby; all you need to do is click.”

Kate Hakala

Shonda Rhimes Is a Brilliant Writer—and Joe Morton Is a Brilliant Actor

ROWAN: You’re funny. You’re a funny, funny man.

FITZ: I am?

ROWAN: Or should I say boy? You’re a boy. You’ve been coddled, and cared for, pampered and hugged. For you it’s always summertime. And the livin’ is easy. Daddy’s rich, your momma’s good looking, you’re a Grant. You got money in your blood. You… are… a… boy. I’m a man.

I have worked for every single thing I have ever received. I have fought and scraped and bled for every inch of ground I walk on. I was the first in my family to go to college. My daughter went to boarding school with the children of kings. I made that happen. You cried yourself to sleep because daddy hurt your feelings. Because papa banged his secretary. Because it hurt to have so much money. You spoiled, entitled, ungrateful little brat! You have everything handed to you on a silver platter, and you squander it. You’re given the world and you can’t appreciate it because you haven’t had to work for anything!

Aaron Sorkin Reveals How to Write Unforgettable Dialogue

You want the benefits of free trade? Food is cheaper.


Food is cheaper. Clothes are cheaper, steel is cheaper, cars are cheaper, phone service is cheaper. You feel me building a rhythm here? That’s ‘cause I’m a speechwriter and I know how to make a point.


It lowers prices, it raises income. You see what I did with “lowers” and “raises” there?


It’s called the science of listener attention. We did repetition, we did floating opposites, and now you end with the one that’s not like the others. Ready?

Free trade stops wars. And that’s it. Free trade stops wars! And we figure out a way to fix the rest. One world, one peace—I’m sure I’ve seen that on a sign somewhere.

Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail

Addendum (11/22/2014): Here’s another West Wing explainer, wherein President Bartlet extols the virtues of being an “oratorical snob”:

“Words. Words when spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music. They have rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume. These are the properties of music, and music has the ability to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t.”

47 Spelling Mistakes You’re Making Without Even Realizing It

  1. One buys antiques in an antiques store from an antiques dealer; an antique store is a very old store.
  2. He stayed awhile; he stayed for a while.
  3. Besides is other than; beside is next to.
  4. The singular of biceps is biceps; the singular of triceps is triceps. There’s no such thing as a bicep; there’s no such thing as a tricep.
  5. A blond man, a blond woman; he’s a blond, she’s a blonde.
  6. Something centers on something else, not around it.
  7. If you’re talking about a thrilling plot point, the word is climactic; if you’re discussing the weather, the word is climatic.
  8. A cornet is an instrument; a coronet is a crown.
  9. One emigrates from a place; one immigrates to a place.
  10. The word is enmity, not emnity.
  11. One goes to work every day, or nearly, but eating lunch is an everyday occurrence.
  12. A flair is a talent; a flare is an emergency signal.
  13. A flier is someone who flies planes; a flyer is a piece of paper.
  14. Flower bed, not flowerbed.
  15. Free rein, not free reign.
  16. To garner is to accumulate, as a waiter garners tips; to garnish (in the non-parsley meaning) is to take away, as the government garnishes one’s wages; a garnishee is a person served with a garnishment; to garnishee is also to serve with a garnishment (that is, it’s a synonym for “to garnish”).
  17. A gel is a jelly; it’s also a transparent sheet used in stage lighting. When Jell-O sets, or when one’s master plan takes final form, it either jells or gels (though I think the former is preferable).
  18. Bears are grizzly; crimes are grisly. Cheap meat, of course, is gristly.
  19. Coats go on hangers; planes go in hangars.
  20. One’s sweetheart is “hon,” not “hun,” unless one’s sweetheart is Attila (not, by the way, Atilla) or perhaps Winnie-the-Pooh (note hyphens).
  21. One insures cars; one ensures success; one assures people.
  22. Lawn mower, not lawnmower.
  23. The past tense of lead is led, not lead.
  24. One loathes someone else but is loath to admit one’s distaste.
  25. If you’re leeching, you’re either bleeding a patient with a leech or otherwise sucking someone’s or something’s lifeblood. If you’re leaching, you’re removing one substance from another by means of a percolating liquid (I have virtually no idea what that means; I trust that you do).
  26. Masseurs are men; masseuses are women. Many otherwise extremely well educated people don’t seem to know this; I have no idea why. (These days they’re all called massage therapists anyway.)
  27. The short version of microphone is still, so far as Random House is concerned, mike. Not, ick, mic.
  28. There’s no such word as moreso.
  29. Mucus is a noun; mucous is an adjective.
  30. Nerve-racking, not -wracking; racked with guilt, not wracked with guilt.
  31. One buys a newspaper at a newsstand, not a newstand.
  32. An ordinance is a law; ordnance is ammo.
  33. Palette has to do with color; palate has to do with taste; a pallet is, among other things, something you sleep on.
  34. Nounwise, a premier is a diplomat; a premiere is something one attends. Premier is also, of course, an adjective denoting quality.
  35. That which the English call paraffin (as in “paraffin stove”), we Americans call kerosene. The term paraffin should generally be reserved for the waxy, oily stuff we associate with candles.
  36. Prophecy is a noun; prophesy is a verb.
  37. It’s restroom.
  38. The Sibyl is a seeress; Sybil is Basil Fawlty’s wife.
  39. Please don’t mix somewhat and something into one murky modifier. A thing is somewhat rare, or it’s something of a rarity.
  40. A tick bites; a tic is a twitch.
  41. Tortuous is twisty, circuitous, or tricky; torturous is painful, or painfully slow.
  42. Transsexual, not transexual.
  43. Troops are military; troupes are theatrical.
  44. A vice is depraved; a vise squeezes.
  45. Vocal cords; strikes a chord.
  46. A smart aleck is a wise guy; a mobster is a wiseguy.
  47. X ray is a noun; X-ray is a verb or adjective.

Benjamin Dreyer

The Right Way to Say 15 Brand Names You’re Mispronouncing

You’re Using This Common Word Incorrectly

Can you guess what the word is? A few examples:

● Both of these phrases are correct.

● I enjoyed all of the deserts.

● Get off of the coach.

When an Adverb Ruins an Adjective

This article, Chris Cillizza recently wrote, “is totally fascinating.”

Do you really need the word “totally,” Chris?

Related: When an Adjective Ruins a Noun


Addendum (1/30/2015): Another example:

”Apple has been very visionary in creating and expanding significant new consumer electronics categories,” Mr. Sacconaghi said.

Do you really need the word “verb,” Mr. Sacconaghi?

A Good Parallel vs. a Great Parallel

Good Writing
Our treatment isn’t making him better. It’s making him worse.

Great Writing
Our treatment isn’t making him better. It’s killing him.

House, MD

A Real Reporter Never Quotes a News Release

The Journal’s deputy editor in chief explains:

“We sometimes fall into a bad habit of quoting extensively and unnecessarily from news releases. In certain instances, particularly the first seconds of a breaking story when sometimes a release is all you have and we need to get something on wires and online fast, it’s understandable, even necessary. But as we quickly transition to fill out a story for wires and other platforms, we should go well beyond news releases as quickly as possible to reported analysis. Releases should then be quoted sparingly, if at all. They usually make stories longer, but not clearer. Most material in a news release, in most cases, can be paraphrased more understandably, and more quickly, in plainer English, by a good writer. News-release quotes, especially, are crafted sentences that bear little relationship to actual statements by actual beings; we should strive for fresh, original and engaging quotations.”


“I’m gonna go Benadryl myself to sleep.”

Gone Girl

All the Best Writers Use This Easy Trick

When confronted with a complex issue, the best writers often translate it by way of an analogy or metaphor. A few examples from a recent article in Time, on the subject of sleep, by Alice Park:

What Your Brain Does While You’re Awake

The difference between the waking and sleeping brain is dramatic. When the brain is awake, it resembles a busy airport, swelling with the cumulative activity of individual messages traveling from one neuron to another. The activity inflates the size of brain cells until they take up 86% of the brain’s volume.

What Your Brain Does While You Sleep

When the lights go out, our brains start working—but in an altogether different way than when we’re awake. At night, a legion of neurons springs into action, and like any well-trained platoon, the cells work in perfect synchrony, pulsing with electrical signals that wash over the brain with a soothing, hypnotic flow. Meanwhile, data processors sort through the reams of information that flooded the brain all day at a pace too overwhelming to handle in real time. The brain also runs checks on itself to ensure that the exquisite balance of hormones, enzymes and proteins isn’t too far off-kilter. And all the while, cleaners follow in close pursuit to sweep out the toxic detritus that the brain doesn’t need and which can cause all kinds of problems if it builds up.

What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

Brain cells that don’t get their needed break every night are like overworked employees on consecutive double shifts—eventually, they collapse.

Even Einstein Could Express His Theories in Plain Language

“Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.”

Albert Einstein

Lobbyists Love Loquaciousness

The Lord’s Prayer
66 words
The Gettysburg Address
286 words
The Declaration of Independence
1,322 words
U.S. regulations on the sale of cabbage
27,000 words

RIP, James Tracifant.

Addendum (1/28/15): It turns out this is false.

Which Sentence Is Better?

1. A DHS report estimates that over 40% of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. since 2004 have traveled through the Mona Pass.

2. Between 2004 and 2010, more than 4 in 10 illegal immigrants traveled through the Mona Pass.

Leave your answer and explanation in the comments section.

"By Writing Densely, I'll Impress Everybody"

Martin Wolf “is as grand and important as an economic journalist can ever become,” one pundit recently observed. In that light, consider this passage from Wolf’s new book:

“With the eurozone in internal and external balance and creditor eurozone seeking internal balance via ever-­larger external imbalances in the form of current-­account surpluses, debtor eurozone could only attain internal balance with ever-­larger external imbalances in the form of current-account deficits.”

If you understood this sentence on your first try, I’ll buy you a drink.

Here’s another typical sentence:

“If domestic output is to be sufficient to generate full utilization of capacity, aggregate demand must exceed domestic output by the size of the current-­account deficit, at full employment.”

Wolf may be brilliant, but he’s a lousy writer. As Felix Salmon puts it, “Given a choice between precision and ease of understanding, Wolf will always choose precision, talking about countries’ ‘net external liability position’ (instead of ‘national debt’) on one page, and their ‘real unit labor costs’ (instead of ‘wages’) on the next.”

My colleague Paul Stregevsky is less forgiving. Wolf, he’d argue, thinks that by writing densely, he’ll impress everyone.

Think again, sir. By writing densely, you come across as dense.

When an Adjective Ruins a Noun

My emphasis:

“It was a very life-changing experience,” Mr. Dickerson said of his role in helping to save HealthCare.gov.

How Apple Uses Semantics to Enforce Brand Consistency

Have you ever noticed that Apple always refers to the iPad as “magical”? Or the App Store as “legendary”? Or the iPhone as “revolutionary”?

As the all-things-Apple blog, 9to5Mac, reports, these adjectives are enforced as part of Cupertino’s comprehensive, obsessive attention to detail. As a result, those “magical iPads” and “revolutionary iPhones” don’t just appear in Apple’s news releases, but also across the company’s marketing materials, internal presentations, and media events. In short: everything.

fav. fave

Welcome to the new “gif” vs. “jif” debate.

This Is the Voice You Need if You Want to Write for Gawker

Written in 2008, this internal memo from Valleywager Paul Boutin holds up remarkably well today.

If someone screwed up in business, find something nice to say about them: “The charmingly incompetent CEO.” If someone succeeded, find a way to slap them. “The wildly successful blowhard.” Denton says this is a key to Gawker posts about people, and when he got lazy he slipped on it and readers noticed in a roundabout way that the site felt less brilliant.

Write about Steve Jobs or Jonathan Ive rather than “Apple” as an actor. Or find out who their VP of sales is if they’ve had a wildly successful quarter and credit him/her, a nice detail. I don’t want to read that the Zune is a flop, I want to read that Wink Twinkerton, head of the Zune division, has done for portable music players what Bill Gates did for CEO sex appeal.

Calling Ron Paul a loon isn’t edgy. Much better was “voting for Ron Paul sends a message. The message is you’re crazy and hate the FDA.” That’s a nice setup and punch line, and a good non-cliche detail rather than an unspecific “loon.”

If someone whose politics or opinions you disagree with says something you want to call out, don’t do a straight-ahead criticism. Instead, take their argument further to a simple but ridiculous conclusion. When Hillary Clinton proposed a moratorium on home foreclosures and a freeze on loan rates, Jordan Golson asked, “Why not a moratorium on people paying their mortgages? That seems easier.”

You’ve wrung this out of them mostly, but I still see the young ones do the old-school Ann Coulter/Molly Ivins thing of insulting someone three times in a paragraph when once would be better. Pick the one best dig and save the others for another time.

If someone says several stupid things in one piece, just quote them and don’t rebut each line separately. Do a 100-word version with only the dumbest parts. Readers will get it.

Avoid journalist-speak like “He takes umbrage with our statement.” You never say umbrage in real life.

Some, many, few ... these are journalist numbers for when they want to imply a trend. Often they’re used to overstate the number of people who do or don’t do something. “Some feel that Obama ...” Cut that, and instead give me a specific quote from a linkable person that sums up the general mood you’re talking about.

We’ve slipped on that. Too many jokes comes across as not having enough to report. Keep the post short and move onto the next one.

Surprise readers by quitting on a review or report halfway through it, once you know you’ve hit the hight points already. Find some reason to explain your exit. Melissa Gira Grant started to summarize the SF Bay Guardian’s annual sex guide, but when she got to a piece that was restaurant suggestions, she wrote, “I stopped reading here.” It keeps posts short, and breaks the mold of the reviewer who takes 400 words to wind down.

Should be used to illustrate someone’s foibles. E.g. “President Steve Jobs issues the most expensive U.S. budget ever, but it fits in a manila envelope.”

Douche, douchebag, douchery, asshat. TechCrunch uses them, need I say more. (To which I’ll add: “teh,” “intarwebs,” “lulz.”)

Why We Should Celebrate Doublespeak

“There are all kinds of situations in which this sort of double meaning comes in handy. You don’t really find my joke funny, but you don’t want to hurt my feelings? Fav it; I’ll interpret it as a hearty LOL.

“You want to kiss up to a superior who keeps posting banal New Age quotations? Fav her; you can always plausibly deny any sycophancy to your colleagues, because a fav doesn’t mean anything.

“You may wonder why should we celebrate doublespeak. The body language analogy is useful here. Shrugs, grunts, winks, nods, squints, eyebrow tilts—these are undefined signals, little human gestures that suggest some meaning. They’re powerful because they’re intentional, but also because they’re ambiguous.

“Sometimes body language hides more than it says. But we use our bodies to do some of the talking because maintaining civility and good feelings is often necessary; for the sake of everyone, you don’t say every honest thought that pops into your head.

“Twitter’s fav acquired its power only by happenstance. In its early days, the service never defined what the ‘favorite’ button was for, leaving people free to find creative ways to use it.

“The history of the fav should serve as a model for the many new chat apps popping up: They should resist overdefining every feature or making every action a signal in some kind of learning algorithm. They should add in a few extra user-interface elements that do nothing at all.

“At first, people will wonder what they’re for. In time, they may come to develop a completely new way of connecting.


If JFK Had Been a CEO Instead of a President, Here’s How His Moon Speech Would Have Sounded

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued an immediately famous call to “put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.”

As Chip and Dan Heath point out, had Kennedy been a CEO, his words would have become insufferably stilted and drained of their vitality. He would have said something like, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.”

What Makes Malcolm Gladwell Such a Wonderful Writer?

Consider this passage from Gladwell’s book Outliers:

The “achievement gap” is a phenomenon that has been observed over and over again, and it typically provokes one of two responses. The first response is that disadvantaged kids simply don’t have the same ability to learn as children from more privileged backgrounds. They’re not as smart. The second, slightly more optimistic conclusion is that, in some ways, our schools are failing poor children: we simply aren’t doing a good enough job of teaching them the skills they need. But here’s where Alexander’s study gets interesting, because it turns out neither of those explanations rings true.

As English professor Rob Jenkins points out, in less than 100 words, Gladwell accomplishes four major feats of writing that make you want to continue reading:

1. He varies sentence length to create a subtle sense of pace.

2. He smoothes out the rough edges of the sentences through liberal use of contractions (generally considered a no-no in academic prose).

3. He only addresses readers directly, but also includes us in the discussion (“our schools,” “we … aren’t”).

4. He uses simple, everyday words when such words carry the desired meaning, while not altogether avoiding longer words (like “phenomenon”) when needed. (“Simple,” in this case, does not mean “simplistic.”)

“Granted, Gladwell is one of the very best writers working today,” Jenkins concludes. “But isn’t that exactly what we ought to be teaching our students—what the best writers do?”

How Do You Concretize 37 Grams of Fat?

A memorable story from Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007):

Art Silverman stared at a bag of movie popcorn. It looked out of place sitting on his desk. His office had long since filled up with fake-butter fumes. Silverman knew, because of his organization’s research, that the popcorn on his desk was unhealthy. Shockingly unhealthy, in fact. His job was to figure out a way to communicate this message to the unsuspecting moviegoers of America.

Silverman worked for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit group that educates the public about nutrition. The CSPI sent bags of movie popcorn from a dozen theaters in three major cities to a lab for nutritional analysis. The results surprised everyone.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that a normal diet contain no more than 20 grams of saturated fat each day. According to the lab results, the typical bag of popcorn had 37 grams.

The culprit was coconut oil, which theaters used to pop their popcorn. Coconut oil had some big advantages over other oils. It gave the popcorn a nice, silky texture, and released a more pleasant and natural aroma than the alternative oils. Unfortunately, as the lab results showed, coconut oil was also brimming with saturated fat.

The single serving of popcorn on Silverman’s desk—a snack someone might scarf down between meals—had nearly two days’ worth of saturated fat. And those 37 grams of saturated fat were packed into a medium-sized serving of popcorn. No doubt a decent-sized bucket could have cleared triple digits.

The challenge, Silverman realized, was that few people know what “37 grams of saturated fat” means. Most of us don’t memorize the USDA’s daily nutrition recommendations. Is 37 grams good or bad? And even if we have an intuition that it’s bad, we’d wonder if it was “bad bad” (like cigarettes) or “normal bad” (like a cookie or a milk shake).

Even the phrase “37 grams of saturated fat” by itself was enough to cause most people’s eyes to glaze over. “Saturated fat has zero appeal,” Silverman says. “It’s dry, it’s academic, who cares?”

Silverman could have created some kind of visual comparison— perhaps an advertisement comparing the amount of saturated fat in the popcorn with the USDA’s recommended daily allowance. Think of a bar graph, with one of the bars stretching twice as high as the other.

But that was too scientific somehow. Too rational. The amount of fat in this popcorn was, in some sense, not rational. It was ludicrous. The CSPI needed a way to shape the message in a way that fully communicated this ludicrousness.

Silverman came up with a solution.

CSPI called a press conference on September 27, 1992. Here’s the message it presented: “A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings—combined!”

The folks at CSPI didn’t neglect the visuals—they laid out the full buffet of greasy food for the television cameras. An entire day’s worth of unhealthy eating, displayed on a table. All that saturated fat—stuffed into a single bag of popcorn.

The story was an immediate sensation, featured on CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN. It made the front pages of USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post’s Style section. Leno and Letterman cracked jokes about fat-soaked popcorn, and headline writers trotted out some doozies: “Popcorn Gets an ‘R’ Rating,” “Lights, Action, Cholesterol!” “Theater Popcorn Is Double Feature of Fat.”

The idea stuck. Moviegoers, repulsed by these findings, avoided popcorn in droves. Sales plunged. The service staff at movie houses grew accustomed to fielding questions about whether the popcorn was popped in the “bad” oil. Soon after, most of the nation’s biggest theater chains—including United Artists, AMC, and Loews—announced that they would stop using coconut oil.

Editors’ Endless Editing

“Go find a story published a few years ago in the New Yorker, perhaps America’s most tightly edited magazine. Give that story to an editor, and tell him it’s a draft. I guarantee you that that editor will take that story—well-polished diamond that it presumably is—and suggest a host of changes. Rewrite the story to the specifications of the new editor. Then take it to another editor, and repeat the process. You will find, once again, that the new editor has changes in mind. If you were a masochist, you could continue this process indefinitely. You would never find an editor who read the story, set down his pencil, and said, ‘Looks fine. This story is perfect.’ This is because editing is an art, not a science. To imagine that more editors will produce a better story is akin to imagining that a song by your favorite band would be better if, after the band finished it, it was remixed by a succession of ten producers, one after the other. Would it be different? Yes. Would it be better? I doubt it. The only thing you can be sure of is that it would not be the song that the actual musicians wanted it to be.”

Hamilton Nolan